Jan. 11, 2021

Sadeqa Johnson - YELLOW WIFE

Sadeqa Johnson - YELLOW WIFE

Sadeqa discusses her latest novel Yellow Wife, how the story spoke to her, switching from contemporary fiction to historical fiction for this book, tackling a tough and timely topic, how she loves to hike when she has free time, and much more.


Sadeqa discusses her latest novel Yellow Wife, how the story spoke to her, switching from contemporary fiction to historical fiction for this book, tackling a tough and timely topic, how she loves to hike when she has free time, and much more.

Yellow Wife can be purchased at Murder by the Book. 

Sadeqa’s 2 recommended reads are:

  1. Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
  2. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Other books mentioned are Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke and The Mothers by Brit Bennett. Yellow Wife is one of my She Reads Winter's Most Anticipated Historical Fiction Books.

If you enjoy reading historical fiction and want to listen to more episodes like this one, try Hazel Gaynor, Judithe Little, Nguyen Phan Que Mai, Kristin Harmel, and Marie Benedict.

Transcript

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

lumpkin, book, writing, richmond, story, slaves, read, hiking, jail, jailers, women, authors, cover, title, wife, trail, research, yellow, virginia, feel

SPEAKERS

Cindy Burnett, Sadeqa Johnson

 

Cindy Burnett  00:07

This is the Thoughts from a Page Podcast where I interview authors about their latest works. My name is Cindy Burnett, and I love to talk about books. If you have any comments, questions you want to ask authors, or feedback for me, feel free to contact me through my website thoughtsfromapage.com. If you enjoy these podcast episodes, you should check out the literary salon tab on my website and sign up for our newsletter. We are hosting some fabulous online events in 2021. Today I am interviewing Sadeqa Johnson. Sadeqa, a former public relations manager, spent several years working with well-known authors such as JK Rowling, Bebe Moore Campbell, Amy Tan, and Bishop TD Jakes before becoming an author herself. Johnson is a Kimbilo Fellow, former board member of the James River writers, and proud member of the Tall Poppy Writers. She also teaches fiction writing for the MFA program at Drexel University. Originally from Philadelphia, she currently lives near Richmond, Virginia, with her amazingly supportive husband of 18 years and their three beautiful children. This week, I am publishing five episodes of the podcast every day on Monday through Friday, because so many great books are coming out on January 12th, and I wanted to talk to each one of these fabulous authors. I hope you enjoy each and every one of the interviews. Thanks so much for listening. Welcome Sadeqa. I'm so glad you were here today to speak with me about the Yellow Wife. How are you?

 

Sadeqa Johnson  01:32

I'm doing great. Cindy, thank you so much for having me.

 

Cindy Burnett  01:35

I have just been seeing this book everywhere so I'm really excited to talk about it. Why don't we start out with you just telling me a little bit about Yellow Wife?

 

Sadeqa Johnson  01:43

So Yellow Wife is the story of Pheby Delores Brown. She's a 17-year-old mulatto girl living in Charles City, Virginia on a plantation. She is the daughter of a favorite slave Ruth who is the medicine woman and also the plantation seamstress. She is also the daughter of the master. She is kind of living in that in-between world where, although she is owned by her master, she's not treated like the rest of the slaves. And so she's kind of caught between two worlds. She's been promised freedom at her 18th birthday. She's also been prized by the master's sister, who didn't have children, who never got married. And she's the one who taught Pheby how to read, how to write, how to play piano. And Pheby is preparing to be free at her 18th birthday. A series of events occur that really throw the trajectory of her life off balance. And she finds herself at one of the most infamous jails and slave pens in Richmond, Virginia, called the Lapierre Jail, where slaves are sent to be punished. And it's also a holding pen and a trading center. There she encounters some of the worst and unimaginable things that she could even, I mean she can't even fathom it until it happens. And there she has to kind of figure out how to survive in this place and outwit the owner of the jail so that she can live some sort of life.

 

Cindy Burnett  03:17

I just think that would be so terrible to have had one trajectory and thinking you're going to be free. I mean, independent of the whole idea that obviously everyone should be free. But within this storyline and the way things were happening to think that your life was going to go one way and suddenly everything changes and you're stuck in the complete opposite, which just sounds like a hell for her.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  03:39

It definitely was, and it throws her off balance for a good portion of the story. But she has to be strong. I know when I was writing the story, my editor kept saying Pheby needs to have agency even though she's in this terrible situation, she needs to have a little bit of agency. And so how do you create that so that she is moving forward in a situation that is really difficult?

 

Cindy Burnett  04:07

That makes sense because yes, you want her to be growing. And like you said, having agency and trying to figure out what she can do in this terrible situation.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  04:15

Yes, for sure.

 

Cindy Burnett  04:17

Well, how did you come up with the subject matter for this book?

 

Sadeqa Johnson  04:20

I like to say that Yellow Wife chose me. I had moved to the Richmond, Virginia area in 2015. And we had only been here about six months before we had some visitors from New Jersey (we moved here from New Jersey) come to visit us, and we were looking for an activity that we could do with our kids and their kids and just have a family history lesson. So we took them down to the Richmond slave trail, and we walked along the James River and read all of the different markers that kind of talked about the path that the slaves took when they were bought here on boats and brought into Richmond. And it was on the trail as the kids were reading the different markers that I discovered the story of Mary Lumpkin, who was an enslaved mulatto woman, and she was married to Robert Lumpkin who owned the infamous Lumpkin Jail. And that is what the story is based on. And I remember reading the markers and just getting really caught up in who Mary was. The marker said that she had raised five children with him, and that they lived on a half acre, the Devil's Half Acre is what it was called. I live on three quarters of an acre, and I'm raising three children. And I guess as a mother, that was my first thought. How in the world is Mary raising these children living on this jail where they said the most horrific thing imaginable happened? How is she surviving? Is it is it survival? Is it love? How is she raising her children? And so that is kind of where the story started to germinate in my belly. So we jumped back in the car because the, the trail is pretty long for children to walk the entire trail. It had 17 markers at that time we discovered it. So we jumped in the car, kind of cheated, and drove to the land where the Lumpkin's jail used to be. And it was there that I got a little bit more information about them. And I don't know, I just, I feel like the story took hold of me. I like to joke that it felt like the ancestors were like, Oh, Sadeqa, you finally arrived! We've been waiting for you.

 

Cindy Burnett  06:35

I like that.  (both laugh)

 

Sadeqa Johnson  06:37

They jumped in the car with me and followed me.

 

Cindy Burnett  06:42

You're like go, go away. But you're like, No, no, I'll take you in.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  06:47

I was absolutely terrified of, you know, if I can be completely honest, I had not written historical fiction before. My first three books are all contemporary fiction set in the day that I live. And so the idea of writing something in 1850, way before I was born, was very, very scary.

 

Cindy Burnett  07:06

I can see that because it is a big shift from contemporary fiction, and not really having to kind of worry as much about all the historical details to switching back to especially something that you've taken on. I mean, that's an important story. And there would have been a lot of detail about that jail I'm assuming.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  07:22

There was a lot of details about the jail. There was a good amount about Robert Lumpkin enough for me to kind of use my imagination. There was not at the time that I was researching it, or at least to my knowledge, awful lot about Mary Lumpkin. But what I did find was other women who were like her. And so I was able to kind of use my imagination and piece it all together. I mean, a lot of this story is my imagination. I use facts as much as I could. But for the most part, it's my imagination.

 

Cindy Burnett  07:54

That's so interesting that you say there wasn't a lot about Mary, because I feel like I hear that so often from women writing historical fiction about other women. That the record is always very strong for the man, but a lot of times, there's very little about some of these women who lead very interesting and often important lives.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  08:12

Yeah, I agree. It was disheartening actually. Carina Hinton appears in the story, she's one of the other wives. And there's a big scene in the story where the jailers and their wives get together, and they have a dinner party. And I was able to find a good amount about her. And she was very interesting. And I, and I thought, Oh, my gosh, I wonder if I had discovered her first, would the story had been her story versus the story of Mary Lumpkin. But I was able to weave the two together and really make it make sense for myself and honor both women in the story, which was important to me. It was very important to honor as many historical figures as I could while creating fiction.

 

Cindy Burnett  08:54

I love that because those are my favorite historical fiction stories to read are those where you, people are honoring important women from that era, but also then weaving in the story of the place and events that happened at that same time.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  09:06

Yes.

 

Cindy Burnett  09:07

What do you hope your readers take away from this book?

 

Sadeqa Johnson  09:10

I hope they understand the impossible choices that women in bondage were forced to make at that time. Like you said, a lot of times we're thinking about men, but women were the backbone of the society. And I hope that they take away those choices that they had to make and see these stories of survival as inspirational. I tell my children, that everything that is happening, happening in this country with the social uprisings, and police brutality, all of it goes back to slavery. All of it goes back to slavery. And so it's really important for us to understand our roots as Americans and and really feel that history so that we know where we're going. We can't pretend it didn't happen, because it did. And it's so embedded in the fiber of our culture.

 

Cindy Burnett  09:59

Most definitely. And I do think that after this summer and the Black Lives Matter and the protests and more of a focus on that, that maybe more people are coming around to understand that, really slavery is the root of the problem. And so you're right, like telling some of these stories and understanding what happened and how it got us to where we are, will hopefully continue to educate people.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  10:20

Yeah, that is my hope.

 

Cindy Burnett  10:22

Mine too. Did you have a highlight of writing Yellow Wife?

 

Sadeqa Johnson  10:26

Hmm. A highlight? Wow, that's a good question. I think just overall, I enjoyed the experience of the research. I spent a lot of time at the Library of Virginia. I read a lot of books that were written by slaves. I enjoyed their true account. The summer that I started the research, I remember being on the beach, reading all these heavy books feeling like I was alone, because everybody else was kind of reading those like beachy books. And I was like deep, deep in the history of this country. But, you know, the research for me was the highlight, like getting to know these people, getting to know this part of history. And because I'm not from Virginia, I can't say that this was anything that I had learned growing up growing up in Philadelphia. This wasn't something that was in my history books. I don't remember anything like this at my social studies classes. So really learning the history and knowing where I live now. And the history of the people who were here before me really, really was the highlight I would say for me.

 

Cindy Burnett  11:30

Well, it had to be so interesting, and as you said, kind of opened a window into a story or a place in a time that you weren't as familiar with.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  11:37

Yeah, for sure.

 

Cindy Burnett  11:38

So do you have a favorite book that you have written of your books?

 

Sadeqa Johnson  11:42

In all honesty, I would say my second novel, Second House from the Corner, is probably my favorite. And the reason why is because some of the stuff that appears in the book were stories that my grandmother told me, and my grandmother has passed away. And so I remember just kind of listening to her, asking her questions about our family, our family's history, or just catching her at a moment where she told me something really, really funny. And I would jot it down and say, Oh, this goes in the book kind of thing. And so I feel really close to that book, particularly because of her stories. And also, it was the first time that I had written about Philadelphia, which is where I was raised up until I went to college. And I didn't move back. But being able to kind of go back into my own history and explore the streets that I walked as a kid was, was really, really fun for me. It was also a book that I have written when I was very similar to the character Felicia. I had three small children at home. She had three small children at home, and she felt like she was drowning in her skin, and I could totally identify with like wanting to  pull my hair out. And so being able to get that experience down on page really is near and dear to my heart.

 

Cindy Burnett  12:53

I guess kind of cathartic too maybe. It's hard when they're little and you've got three close together like that. Mine were the same way two years apart, three of them. And when they're really young, I mean it is the days are just so long. And people say the days are long, and the years are short, and I kind of felt like that. So it had to be kind of nice maybe to have an outlet for kind of expressing what you were feeling.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  13:13

It was, and at that age, they say the darndest things. I remember once I was in the car with my daughter and she said to me, she said Mom, turn your brain on. And I remember looking at her through the rearview mirror thinking, huh? She said, when your face looks like that, that means your brain is turned off. So turn your brain on. And of course, I snatched it right up and put it in the story because it was just so delicious.

 

Cindy Burnett  13:37

Oh, and they just tune in to the things you would not expect them to. There are times and you're like, wow, you just really put the nail on it there. And I wouldn't have even thought you would have understood what was going on?

 

Sadeqa Johnson  13:48

Yeah, they are hyper aware at that age.

 

Cindy Burnett  13:50

They are. Well, I'm a huge title and cover person. So I'd love to hear more about how your title came about. And then about your cover.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  13:57

Sure. So the title Yellow Wife came through my research. I was reading, and I believe I did a Google search, and I found online information about Robert Lumpkin and about his will. And it said something to the effect of I leave all of my property and my fortune to my yellow wife. And I thought, Oh, yellow wife. So he referred to Mary Lumpkin as his yellow wife because she was mulatto. And then he said, I leave whatever it was, he left to his black concubine. Because he also had a second woman who was darker skinned and who also had children by him and that sort of thing who lived on the jail. And I thought, oh, yellow wife. Wow. And I jotted it down. And I always kind of come up with a title early on. For me, it helps sets set the tone, I always need a title. And I always need a quote from someone that's not me to kind of set up the structure of the book. And but I'm never married to the title, I always feel like, Okay, if my editor and my agent said this is not working, and they wanted to change it, I'm usually flexible. But it has not happened. And all four of my novels, the title has always stuck.

 

Cindy Burnett  15:14

 Really? I don't know that I have ever heard an author say that. That is really cool. And it must mean you're a very good title creator.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  15:21

Maybe or I'm just lucky. (both laugh)

 

Cindy Burnett  15:24

Or they are like, okay, she's not gonna want us to change that title. So we'll leave it. Gosh, that yellow wife? I mean, I don't know that. Of course, you know, you have to think of time and place. But that is just seems kind of I don't, I don't know. Harsh. So and I'm assuming he was white, because he was running the jail. Correct?

 

Sadeqa Johnson  15:41

Which is so funny that you should say that because in the beginning, when I was on the trail, because I knew in at in the 1800s that blacks and whites couldn't marry. It was illegal. And so my first thought was is Robert Lumpkin a black man? Because I had read stories where blacks owned slaves, and then I kept thinking, Oh, my gosh, like, was he the biggest, baddest harshest trader in all of Richmond? And so that was another thing that piqued my interest, too. And so when I got home, and I researched it, I did find out that he, in fact, of course, was a white man.

 

Cindy Burnett  16:15

That just seems so bizarre to me that you would be running the jail and then you would marry someone who was partly black, or also have a black concubine. It just seems so I don't know ironic, or what the right word is, it just seems kind of bizarre.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  16:30

Well, what I found in my research was that men of his level of business, meaning men who were jailers or traders, they were looked at as the pariahs in society. So even though everyone had slaves, the people who lived up on the hill and the richer white people, they looked down on him and what not marry their daughters to people like him. So really, the only options that they had to settle down and to have a wife was mulatto, which they looked at as somewhere in between, not quite white, not quite black. And so the lighter, lighter-skinned mulatto women were the ones who all of those jailers, at least from my research, were married to.

 

Cindy Burnett  17:16

Oh, that's interesting, I guess you have to try to put it in another. It's just hard to imagine today. So then you have to realize, okay, I've got to go back 100 however many years, but that I guess that makes sense in terms of the social class, and you could see where some of these other people might not think that marrying a jailer would be what they would want for their daughter.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  17:32

Yeah, the social class and the structure of the social class was really, really important.

 

Cindy Burnett  17:38

That makes sense. Well, what about the cover? I think the cover is stunning.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  17:42

Thank you. So we went through a couple of rounds of covers. I'm very fortunate, again that I had agency over the cover. My editor brought covers to me, first she asked me, what did I envision? And so we kind of talked that through. They had the art department pull a few covers, we didn't find anything on the first round myself, and my agents kind of gave feedback. And I think this is probably either the third or the fourth round of artwork. But each time we just got closer and closer, and we got down to two covers. And what my editor did was she took it to sales conference, the two covers, and the one that I picked, which is the cover we have, the whole sales team was behind it from the very beginning. So it just really all worked out.

 

Cindy Burnett  18:28

The whole cover process is always completely fascinating to me, because I didn't realize when I kind of started with all of this reviewing books and getting involved in the book world, how much goes into a cover in terms of the genre, and just all of it. And so that's interesting. Well, that's great, because sometimes I know it can be much more complicated than that.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  18:47

Yeah, it wasn't terrible. I would say it was a very pleasant experience.

 

Cindy Burnett  18:51

That's great. Well, are you working on anything at the present that you would like to share with me?

 

Sadeqa Johnson  18:56

Well, I am. I just started my fifth novel, which sounds so weird, because I told my agent after my first novel, because my first novel took me over 10 years to write. I mean, like literally over 10 years. And so I didn't think I had another book in me. I thought like this is it like I did it, I'm done. And of course, that's not the case. I write book two, and I write book three. And I feel like that again, like when I was starting Yellow Wife, like, Oh, my gosh, how can I do this again, but here I am. On book five. And I have an idea for another historical fiction. I really love the research and writing in a different time now, more so than I thought I would. And so this particular story starts in 1955. So not as far back and it's a story between Philadelphia, so I get to write about my hometown again, so I've been peppering my parents with a lot of questions, and Washington DC and it deals with classism and fertility and a few other subjects that have been kind of on my radar. So that's kind of where I am right now.

 

Cindy Burnett  20:05

Oh, that sounds interesting. That's actually one of my favorite decades to read about because it's after the war, but before there's all the social upheaval of the late 60s, and there's just a lot more going on than you sometimes think. And I don't think there's quite as much written about it.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  20:18

Hmm. Well that's good to know. Because I think I hammered in on 19, I wanted to write about 1954. And I ended up having to make it 1955. Because there were just a few more points in black history that I found in 55 versus 54. And so that's kind of why it starts there. And so that's where I'm where I am.

 

Cindy Burnett  20:44

Oh, good. Well, I look forward to seeing that one when it makes its way out into the world.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  20:48

Thank you.

 

Cindy Burnett  20:50

Well, what do you like to do when you're not writing or reading?

 

Sadeqa Johnson  20:53

So my new favorite passion is hiking. I joined a hiking club a couple of months ago, all women's hiking club here in the Richmond area called Black Girls Hike, RVA. And hiking is always something I wanted to do. But I think I was always a little bit like, what trail do you get on? How do you do it? All of those different questions. But when I joined the group, everything was just kind of planned out. And I just had to show up and follow them. And it was just an amazing experience. So now I've been dragging my husband out. And he loves it. So like we're we went hiking last weekend in the Jefferson National Forest, which is about two hours from Richmond in the Blue Ridge Mountains on the Appalachian Trail. And we did a 6.5 mile hike last week with panoramic views of like so many different mountains. And it's just like I could breathe up there. It's like I feel so connected to my highest source that is just invigorates me. And so I would say that is my new passion. I'm like, now I'm thinking about what's the next weekend we can go out like, when's it not going to be too cold, because it was pretty cold last week, it was 30 something in the mountains, even though it was like in the 40s here. And I was like I am crazy to be out in the mountains in 35 degree weather, but it was just so necessary.

 

Cindy Burnett  22:13

We don't have a lot of hiking in Houston. But we go to Colorado every summer and we hike a ton up there. And I agree with you. I love it just getting high up and it's open. And there aren't a lot of people around and you can just sort of enjoy your environment and the view. And it's just so relaxing.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  22:28

Yeah, it really is amazing. I'm kicking myself because I wish I had started hiking years before. I'm not getting old, but I'm getting older. Goodness gracious. I could have, I could have been doing this for 10 years. By now how many mountains what I've hiked? But you get introduced to the things that you need when you need it. And so where I am right now is absolutely perfect.

 

Cindy Burnett  22:49

Well, that sounds wonderful. And it's a good break from kind of everything else that 2020 has brought to us.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  22:55

And I think that is why it became such a wonderful thing is because even in quarantine there's not much we can do, but I could drag my kids and throw them in the car and take them to a mountain. We're breathing the fresh air. We're safe, it's not like we're at a restaurant. And so it also added to the passion and the need to get outdoors.

 

Cindy Burnett  23:13

Yes, exactly. Which kind of goes toward your it came at the right time for you.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  23:18

For sure.

 

Cindy Burnett  23:19

Well, before we wrap up, I would love to hear what you've read recently that you would recommend.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  23:23

So I just finished Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke, which is a mystery book. And I am not a big mystery reader. But I'm a big Attica Locke fan. And I absolutely loved it. I just purchased the second book in that series called Heaven, My Home. And so that's on my nightstand to read. The book prior to that, that I read or two books prior to that was The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, which completely changed my life. I think that she is a master at writing. And for me, I love reading a book that feels like there's no way on God's green earth that I could have wrote this, like the skill level is beyond anything that I would have done. And I think that was one of the things I really, really loved about The Vanishing Half.

 

Cindy Burnett  24:09

Have you read her first book The Mothers?

 

Sadeqa Johnson  24:12

I did, yeah.

 

Cindy Burnett  24:12

I love that book. I love them both. But I actually love, love, love The Mothers. I read it when it came out, and it was one of my favorite books that year. And The Vanishing Half is obviously great, and it is everywhere. So it came out at a good time too I think. It was kind of a nice fiction title to go with all the nonfiction in the middle of Black Lives Matter and the protests. I thought that was it was nice to have that story out there also.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  24:32

Yes for sure.

 

Cindy Burnett  24:38

And I love Attica Locke. So she comes by the, I work part time at Murder by the Book in Houston and she comes by occasionally because she grew up here and then that story is set not far outside of Houston at all. I love Bluebird, Bluebird.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  24:51

Yeah, I mean, it was amazing. Like I can't, I would have started the second book but what happened was that I got a request to grabbed 6000 bookplates.

 

Cindy Burnett  25:03

Oh, wow!

 

Sadeqa Johnson  25:03

I know. Which is great, right? But that takes up all my reading time because now the time that I will be reading, I'm actually exercising my hand. But I'm very blessed that someone wants 6000 autographs from me.

 

Cindy Burnett  25:15

Yeah, that's amazing. That's a large number and to do all at once. I mean, I know you're not sitting down all at once. But I mean to do in a time period where you're like I've got 6000 to do.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  25:24

Yeah, it's about a week. I have gotten to a good amount, but I need to turn them back in by Friday. So I have like two more days to knock it out.

 

Cindy Burnett  25:32

Well, that's impressive. Well, I can't thank you enough for joining me today on the Thoughts from a Page Podcast. I've had so much fun talking with you Sadeqa.

 

Sadeqa Johnson  25:40

Oh, the pleasure was all mine. Thank you so much for having me.

 

Cindy Burnett  25:45

Thank you so much for listening to my podcast. If you like this episode, and I hope you did, please follow me on Instagram and Pinterest at @thoughtsfromapage.com, tell all of your friends about the podcast, and rate it wherever you listen to your podcasts. I've recently gotten some very nice messages from listeners who were referred by friends or who found it on one of the podcast platforms. And I greatly appreciate hearing from people, and I love hearing that you're enjoying the podcast, so thank you. Sadeqa's book can be purchased at Murder by the Book where I work part time, and the link is in the show notes. Thanks to K.P. Regan for the sound editing, and I hope you'll tune in all week long to listen to these wonderful authors talk about their books.